RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 4: Gus Van Zant’s “Finding Forrester” (2000)


The Players…

Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F Murray Abraham and Anna Paquin, with Busta Rhymes, Michael Pitt and Michael Nouri.

The Story…

Reclusive, award-winning novelist William Forrester wants to have nothing to do with the outside world, at least as far as the other side of his apartment’s window. It’s only when literally a thief in the night loses his bag of writings in his flat that William considers reaching out. Turns out the burglar is named Jamal, and he has considerable writing talent. William decides to mentor the youngster, who harbors a passion not usually associated with the thug kids in the neighborhood. Sure, Jamal likes basketball well enough, but William fast discovers the kid’s real muse: he’s obsessed with words.

The Rant…

Let me tell you the first truth about writing. It’s f*cking hard. Don’t let any dilettante tell you that it’s easy breezy lemon squeezy. Just let your emotions flooow, like a smooth river of caramel dotted with the sweet, sweet morsels of words and words and words. Ah, you can practically hear birds chirping.

A big firm no. Trying to drum up, coax and often cleave words onto a page takes one part crazy, one part driven and one very big part passion. To hole yourself up for hours—days—manipulating those words and create a cohesive narrative takes time, time, practice, effort, coffee, time, barbiturates and time. The life of a writer is not easy, and f*cking all writers say that. Those that like to go rafting down the Cadbury Creek say nay-nay and it’s all about what you feel and stuff. This is the romantic twaddle that gets foisted onto authors by the readers, wishing they could do what they won’t. Which all leads back to cleaving bullsh*t.

But when it’s cut well, like a surgeon with a hawkeye, then all that bourbony sweat and coffee breath and a lion tamer-like will to get the words onto the paper, then yeah, it feels that breezy…to the reader. The hardest part about performing an art is to make it look effortless. That’s why it’s called art. Craft is a better term actually regarding writing. Craft is the job. The story is the art, the throughput. And in writing, a flowing story is tirelessly hewn from that rugged block of the English language.

So how does such a chore of a craft make for a decent movie? Well, to start to answer that we first gotta read between the lines…

Jamal Wallace (Brown) is your average, likable kid. Middling high school student, down with basketball and bumming with his crew. It’s kind of a façade though. Jamal is privately bookish and always scribbling in his journals, hauling them around with him in his omnipresent backpack. He harbors a desire to be a writer, and all those journals serve to get out all those words that so plague his adolescent mind about life, love and leaving.

There are all sorts of pockets of humanity hidden away in the tenements in Jamal’s Bronx neighborhood. The local haunts for all the kids, the basketball court, the high school and the creepy apartment with the even creepier recluse who spies on everybody with binocs via a curiously clear window.

One night, Jamal’s crew puts him up to a dare: sneak into “The Window’s” flat and steal some goodie to prove he was there. Of course this does not go well. Jamal is chased out of the apartment leaving his backpack—and all his journals—behind. When he eventually does retrieve his pack (or rather  unceremoniously dropped on him) and his treasured journals, he finds “The Window” has given them the red pen treatment, scrawling literary criticism across the crinkled pages.

After timidly trying to apologize for his trespassing, Jamal discovers “The Window” is a rather unpleasant, very reclusive crank who goes by the name of William Forrester (Connery). The guy’s got some hefty opinions on writing in general and Jamal’s writings in specific. After taking in the criticism and with some coaxing, Jamal asks Forrester for some tips and tricks. And boy, does he have some.

Turns out that Forrester is a writer of some repute, who successfully wrote his Great American decades ago and has been pulling a Thomas Pynchon ever since. He never goes out, whiles the days away bird watching, spying on the neighborhood and writing missives that no one will ever read all the while curled up with his handy rocks glass of scotch. Unsurprisingly, he has no real friends to speak of outside of his personal library. Jamal’s conciliatory visit comes as more an incursion to the cloistered writer.

Maybe a little guidance should be in order. A little help from Forrester might give Jamal the boost he needs in his budding writing career. And a little boost from Jamal might give crotchety Forrester a little attitude adjustment. Maybe he’ll even get out of the house more. Here’s hoping…

Oooooo, the critics hated this movie.

It was lacerated for being too derivative of Van Zant’s previous Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting (maybe you’ve heard of it). True, Forrester was released barely three years after Will and their plotlines are very similar. Forrester has often touted at Van Zant’s other feel good mentor picture, which sounds kind of disparaging. It is, seeing how both films follow the same pattern; no awards for originality here. This mentor/protégé dynamic has been used before. It’s also sort of timeless and sometimes tiresome, too. So sure, the movie is derivative.

But it’s good derivative.

Unlike Will, Foresster has two things going for it: a lot less melodrama and no Ben Affleck. Also, it’s got Sean Connery! I love Sean Connery. He’s my favorite actor. You can always count on him to deliver the goods. Sure, a lot of his films have sucked big donkey d*ck, but he’s always good—solid, engaging and humorous. What else could you ask for from an actor? And he was James Bond, after all. Street cred. His performance as Forrester here was nothing short of a miracle. Here’s a guy asked to portray what has to be the utmost perfect stereotype of the wise reclusive writer, from being surrounded by books, wearing the robe all day and nursing a nice little drinking problem. And yet it works, because Connery makes the role his own. He plays irascible well as he does thoughtful. His character follows the basic tenet that all writers strive to follow: he shows, not tells. He delivers his lines with wit and sincerity that you could swear it was his own words, not a script. When you think about it, with his 50-plus acting career, Connery really has nothing left to prove. He can and has chosen roles that simply please him. If indeed he had anything left to prove, he could’ve hung up his hat with You Only Live Twice (my fave 007 movie. It’s got karate!). At this point in his vaunted career, Connery’s chosen roles are being Connery. He’s an icon, and he’s aware of it. Just hand him the script and he’ll take the movie from there.

My fawning explains why the Forrester stereotype worked here. You would be correct in claiming that Connery’s titular role is a cipher. To my immediate memory, I can’t recall any movie about writers that didn’t showcase the “the brilliant author” as anything else but quirky, private, antisocial, phobic and (perhaps) harboring an addiction (e.g.: Wonder Boys, Adaptation, Shakespeare In Love, American Splendor, The Shining, Sunset Boulevard and on and on). Connery apparently does, and does it quite well. So how now, Brown Cow? Why doesn’t his Forrester come off as a total caricature?

In a word, earnestness. Sean believes in the man that is Forrester, but not so seriously to make him a man made from stone. Connery injects just enough snark here—almost as a wink to the audience—to make him grounded, relatable. Sure, some could even regard Forrester as a hipster (and I f*cking hate hipsters), but Connery is too sharp to play that card so close to his chest. Remember what I said about him choosing his own roles? He knows what’s going on, his career being so long. In sum, Sean’s self-consciously hamming it up. He understands the stereotype. He understands himself and his acting style. He understands what audiences expect of him. He understands not to give a f*ck and just have some fun. Sean ain’t gonna win no awards here in Forrester, and he don’t give a sh*t anyway. We’re all here to have fun, Ms. Moneypenny (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Now here’s the part where I’m gonna employ my best impression of Roger Ebert crawling up his own ass. Ready?

At the other end of the table, Rob Brown’s performance is noteworthy in that this was his first movie, and had next to no training for the role, the polar opposite of our leading man and the perfect foil. Story goes that Brown tried out for the part just to earn some cash to pay a cell phone bill. It paid off, if you’ll pardon the pun. So by way of overages, we got ourselves a pretty decent young actor. Brown’s Jamal is totally relatable without ever being stereotypical or boring. Sure, Jamal could be any black teen hailing from a crappy neighborhood in the Bronx. Therein lies the key. Even if Brown had no formal training, he picked up pretty quick the paradoxical way of Jamal’s personality. On the outside, yeah, Jamal is average in every sense. Another black kid from the inner city who plays basketball like countless black kids from the inner city who play basketball. Big deal. It’s Jamal’s mannerisms that carefully give away where his real comfort zone lies, but because of his surroundings, it’s not really attainable. Since we understand at the outset that Jamal is a closet bookworm and quite smart, it’s easy to see why he kind of keeps his intellect in check—keeps it under wraps is more like it. His hiding comes across sort of like a social survival skill. Where Jamal lives, being wise is not wise. It’s not appreciated, let alone wanted. It’s only in fits and starts—where a situation moves him—that he expresses himself naturally. Jamal is keenly aware of this outsider status, and goes to certain lengths to hide it. Watching Brown’s expressive facials are paramount to understanding the character as opposed to dialogue and body language. You can’t teach this; it’s a natural gift, and it takes years for a seasoned actor to hone this skill. Some nobody that spent his bucket of minutes trumped dozens of child actors catching 10 percent.

The only times when Jamal’s hidden personality fuses with reality is around Forrester. Not at first, of course. Since this movie is a character study/buddy movie, we need to have that “getting to know you” tension established in order to find the eventual mutual camaraderie and (sometimes sappy, even here) friendship that the audience craves for movies like Forrester. To claim that Forrester brings Jamal out of his shell is a bit of a truism. Such a dynamic is expected here; it’s what the movie’s all about, not writing. Writing is the shared passion of our two leads, and like with most friendships first we establish a common ground, then we explore it further (farther, sorry). Once this is set down, the inevitable happens. Here in Forrester, thanks to our tenderfoot/veteran balance of actors, an otherwise derivative plot is elevated to a really fun character study. Slowly under Forrester’s acerbic tutelage Jamal comes out of the proverbial shell, both with his writing and understanding that it’s okay to be brilliant in fits and starts. After all, Forrester is “brilliant,” but also antisocial and harboring a not so subtle drinking habit. I guess Van Sant’s trying to drive the point home that all creative types have their vices, whether it being scotch, basketball or an inability to express oneself in a emotionally productive manner. In the cloister of “The Window’s” labyrinthine apartment of books, typewriters and multiple TVs, I also guess that Jamal understands it’s okay to explore that stifled part of his personality, and maybe it might be his key to his way out of…something.

*readers stir from their snoring and drooling*

Welcome back. Your fly’s open.

Back to the technical stuff. Regarding the character that is Brown’s Jamal: that’s this trouble with the label “relatable”; it’s a tag that often means cookie-cutter. C’mon, that whole “relatable” tag has been so bandied about so much regarding leading men that it has ceased to maintain relevance. I already went on and on and on about Brown’s excellent delivery, and what made it excellently relatable was Jamal’s insecurities and uncertainty. It was naked, but only if you had a keen eye. Forrester’s schtick was as subtle as neon. With his expressive eyes, honest curiosity and truly down-to-earth demeanor, Brown is a delight. In short, good job kid. You won me over, and this coming from an ardent Connery fan.

Okay, now any story about stories needs a foil, a dastardly villain. We need an Iago here, a Moriarty, a Milton-esque Satan. F Murray Abraham’s Dr Crawford fits the bill here. Abraham is an accomplished, Oscar-winning actor. His Professor Crawford villain here is ham-fisted, greasy and utterly laughable. He’s fun to dislike. Small wonder here that the guy probably relished the role. Crawford is all moustache-twirling and effete and offers a performance so eye-rolling it provide a great deal of unintentional humor. I think we’ve all probably had a teacher along the way like him. All of such credentials lend Abraham into the Velveeta wing of Hollywood’s best worst overactors. Like I implied, I think the guy knew what he was getting into as Forrester’s Salieri (had to mention it at least once. Now shaddap), so I’d also like to think the guy’s attitude to approaching the project was more or less, “What the hell?” So he got all campy and Snidely Whiplash and we were all there to lap it up like fresh cream. Cheesy? Sure. But no less fun.

There are a lot of other little perks to this movie. Devil in the details and all. Jamal’s hidden library. The “ghost” story. Delivering groceries. Jeopardy! Busta as the voice of reason. Crawford’s stupid tea ritual. Paquin’s perky boobs. And something else quite noteworthy? The soundtrack. Painted with the tunes of Miles Davis with the guitar stylings of Bill Frisell, my favorite jazz guitarist (don’t have one? Get one), the music plays layers of jaunty groove and accents all over the urban landscape. It plays as an actor in its own right. And it only gets played when Brown is on screen, usually alone. Representative of our conflicted hero’s mind? You decide.

You got to have a really hard heart to dislike this movie. I for the life of me failed to see any overt issues with Forrester‘s storytelling. The words from the critics seemed like a lot of nitpicking to me. I will admit, Forrester does get treacly at times, but’s often redeemed by our two leads’ hard-won, mutual respect and snappy dialogue. I mean, it’s just a buddy flick, pure and simple, with no pretenses to win any awards. Lighten up. Connery and Brown have a really good chemistry, totally believable. The script is simple, streamlined and deft, and if missing lofty goals about the human condition in the abstract ruins a character study, I say with Forrester let it be ruined. The direction is economical with a minimum of pandering. Forrester might get a bit touchy-feely and maudlin at times, but it’s got Sean Connery. ‘Nuff said.

I’ll be honest, if you don’t like this film you’re a cynical dickhead. And I’m a cynical dickhead.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Call me biased but I’m a sucker for both buddy movies and films about writing. Moreover, it’s one of my guilty pleasure favorite films. Sorry for the hoodwink, but not really.

Stray Observations…

  • Forrester’s apartment looks a lot like my old place during my post-grad days. I didn’t want many visitors either.
  • “Not exactly a soup question.”
  • Punch the keys for God’s sake!” Not as easy with a PC. Or with a typewriter either, those first few pages.
  • There is the scene where Forrester slides a book back into its proper place on the shelf. When I showed my girlfriend the movie, she exclaimed, “That is so you!” We broke up.
  • What the hell is that fiddle at the party? I want one.
  • “You’re the man now, dawg!”

Next Installment…

We’re gonna be rollin’ in Cloverfield, as found footage films go super-sized.


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